Facts about Longyearbyen
text: Angie, Gjestehuset 102
Rich tundras, majestic landscapes, midnight sun, northern lights— Svalbard is indeed a special place where the extraordinary is ordinary. Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago that lies on the northern part of the Earth, in between Norway and the North Pole.
Longyearbyen is the archipelago’s capital town. The name Longyearbyen has nothing to do with the extraordinary season, but was actually named after the town’s founder, John Munroe Longyear, an american businessman who arrived in Spitsbergen in early 1900s as a tourist, but at the same time, to look for economical possibilities. He is the main figure behind the first coal company, Arctic Coal Company. Longyearbyen, in English, translates to ‘The Longyear City’.
Here are some incredible facts about our tiny, incredible town:
1. Death is not illegal, but to be buried is.
Contrary to what you might have read somewhere, death is not illegal here, don’t worry.We know that death is inevitable, that is why, death could not be illegal- but, to be buried, is. The cemeteries in Svalbard are no longer accepting burials because permafrost makes the dead bodies preserved. And not only this– the permafrost pushes objects up to the ground. That is why you can see pieces of woods drifting above the ground in Longyearbyen- they are the foundations from old buildings a lot of years ago!
2. Petting Cats? Absolutely a no-no!
Cats are banned, in the whole archipelago actually. It is for the reason that they might harm the wildlife, specifically the bird’s population. But for those who have already been here, and were able to see Kesha, the most famous Svalbard cat, you might wonder how he’s still here. Kesha is believed to be one of the last offsprings when the government started the ban.
It is really sad to say that Kesha bid his goodbye last January 2021. He was 14.
3. The Midnight sun is real
In Svalbard, the sun does not set for 4 months- from the 20th April until 22nd August. This means that the sun is literally up 24/7 – no darkness at all. You might wonder how people sleep here- well, thick blackout curtains help! During this time, the thick and white snowon the ground is replaced by rich tundras. Reindeers are also seen everywhere. Hiking, Kayaking and boat trips are perfect for this season! It is also a good experience to dip yourself in the cold, arctic waters as a challenge!
4. No one is to be born here
That is because it is not allowed to give birth in Longyearbyen, as in anywhere in the whole archipelago. Though the town has its own hospital, it does not have the necessary facilities to accommodate serious and surgical operations. Pregnant women need to travel to the mainland few weeks before their due date and usually comes back to the island a week after.
5. You can see people with rifle and it’s not something to be afraid of!
Svalbard is a home to great arctic wildlife. People in Svalbard are required to bring weapons for protection against polar bears when going outside the town. Both weapons are used to scare away these lovely but wild creatures. Though it is allowed to carry firearms while walking around, it is not legal to wander inside local establishments with firearms. Buildings have a special safe for the weapons.
6. Buildings are not really on the ground!
Buildings in Longyearbyen are made on stilts and not directly on the ground, though you might observe that there are very few ones. This, again, is because of the permafrost. Creating a warm insulated building on the ground will thaw the permafrost. If this happens, the foundation of the building will sink deep down which will cause the building to collapse.
7. No shoes when entering a building, please!
One of Svalbard’s most common traditions is leaving your shoes when you enter a house or some local establishments including the Tourist Information, the museums, and even here with us at Gjestehuset 102. In earlier times, locals would take off outer footwear to avoid bringing dust and mud inside the buildings. So, when planning to visit, keep a space in the bag for your indoor slippers!
8. Do not pick flowers!
That’s a lot of no no in a row!
Despite the challenging conditions, the vegetation exhibits large variation in form and function. Herbs, grasses, sedges, reeds, creeping dwarf shrubs, some ferns, and mosses and lichens all grow here. With just about 10% of vegetation and mostly consisting of Tundras and permafrost, Svalbard’s plant life is very important. The colorful arctic flowers are, sorry, but for your eyes only!
9. The northernmost seed vault
With its characteristics- the permafrost, location, and geological properties, Svalbard is indeed a perfect place for a seed vault. Longyearbyen is where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located. The vault is a long-term seed storage representing the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. The purpose is to store seed samples from the world’s crop collections. Permafrost and thick rocks ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power. It is indeed the “final back up”!
10. Reindeers as locals
Expect to see the world’s northernmost herbivores, the reindeers, all around the town wandering and snacking themselves on grasses. These friendly creatures can be observed almost everywhere and they always do their own business as if they are not bothered by people passing by.
It is common to see wildlife, such as reindeers, on the premises of Gjestehuset 102, just like shown in the photo. Wildlife by the doorstep indeed!
11. A norwegian multi-nationality town
Norway is responsible for the governance of the archipelago. In its capital town, the buildings, signs, and everything is in Scandinavian style. The main language is Norwegian, and the population mainly consists of Norwegians as well. But in general, Longyearbyen’s residential population is composed of a lot of different nationalities including Russians, Ukrainians, Thais, and Filipinos. This is because of the Svalbard Treaty which recognizes Norway’s sovereignty but at the same time, welcomes people from all around the globe to stay, work and live on the island. Svalbard is not part of the Schengen area, so a visa is not required to enter the island.